Braddock Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman speaks with Billy Penn.

Mayor John showed for an interview in a Philadelphia high-rise across the street from City Hall last week not with his high-powered campaign manager or a media flak. Instead, the 6-foot-8, tattooed pro-wrestler-like man sauntered into our office flanked by his soft-spoken wife Gisele, and their 18-month-old son, August.

Gisele hugged me when she met me, and didn’t once forget my name. August, the youngest of three, bounced around the office like toddlers do. And John spoke passionately about his unlikely rise to current U.S. Senate candidate. But not as passionately as he spoke about the small town of Braddock, Pa.

John Fetterman’s story is the stuff of movies. Born to teenage parents, he ended up at Harvard studying public policy. He moved to a small steel town in western, Pa., became mayor of said small steel town after winning by one vote. Reformed it. Changed it. And he wore a Dickies work shirt and sneakers the whole time.

Now he’s running for United States Senate, joining the crowded Democratic field: The former governor’s chief of staff (and Philly product) Katie McGinty and longtime candidate Joe Sestak. They’re vying for the chance to topple incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey.

Is it an act? This big, bald, goateed, tattooed mayor who cares so much about his town he’ll postpone a Philly campaign event to help find a missing 14-year-old (who they found safe and sound)? Mayor John, who has the Braddock zip code tatted across his left forearm and likes to just be called by his first name, says that he’s not trying to convince anyone. This is just him.

“The haircut is, you know, practical,” he said. “Why would anyone want to look like this? That’s the way I see it. It’s just how things turned out.”

Just to be clear, Mayor John running for #PAsen is on the right, #WWE wrestler @WWETheBigShow is on the left.

— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) September 18, 2015

Fetterman’s party is fractured over who should face Toomey in 2016. But this small-town mayor doesn’t feel like a longshot. He’s drawn a team of experienced political professionals behind him (they’ve worked on campaigns for people like Barack Obama, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Philly Mayor Michael Nutter) and a slate of issues he wants to tackle. And he’s drawn the attention of the national political press, from his multiple appearances on the Colbert Report to an interview in The Washington Post. 

An ad spot he released this week showing the work he and his family did in Braddock has already been called “one of the best campaign videos of the season.” And tonight, he’ll be in Philly meeting with voters at the dive bar Bob and Barbara’s.

So does he have a chance to reach Washington? Hard to say. He admits he doesn’t have the access to cash like Sestak and McGinty do. But Fetterman has one thing they don’t — a hell of a story.

An ‘improbable rise’

Left: John Fetterman as a junior in high school. Right: Fetterman speaks at an event as mayor of Braddock.
Left: John Fetterman as a junior in high school. Right: Fetterman speaks at an event as mayor of Braddock. Credit: and Wikimedia Commons

Fetterman grew up in York, Pa., a town just south of Harrisburg. His father owned a business across from City Hall there, and John did well at Central York High School, excelling in football and making plans to play it in college. He went on to follow in his father’s footsteps and play at Albright College, a liberal arts school back in Reading. After graduation, he went to UConn to get his MBA in the early 90’s.

At the time, Fetterman says his version of real adversity was having football practice three times a day. Then everything took a turn.

During his last semester studying business at UConn, Fetterman’s best friend was on the way to pick him up from the gym when he was hit head on while driving across a bridge. He was killed in the crash, and John for months wrestled with “how you could wake up one morning and have breakfast and say goodbye to the people you love, and not realize you have 15 minutes left to live.” So he joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in New Haven and was paired with an 8-year-old whose father had recently died of AIDS and whose mother was weeks away from death herself.

“So at that point,” he said, “I decided I wanted to get more into social work and figure out these ideas of disparity and income equality.”

So he packed up, moved to Pittsburgh, worked there with AmeriCorps operating computer labs in the Hill District, and then went to Harvard to get a masters in public policy. When he returned to Pittsburgh, he was approached by a local agency that wanted to get a GED program going in Braddock, a small, rust belt mill town 10 miles upstream on the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh.

“I actually went to Braddock to disappear and do this kind of work, because it’s something I have a real affinity for,” he said. “And then it was just this really improbable rise.

“And the thing is,” Fetterman noted, “I never sought it out.”

Bringing change to Braddock

Condemned homes in Braddock, Pa. in 2009.
Condemned homes in Braddock, Pa. in 2009. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Braddock was once the Silicon Valley of the industrial revolution. Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill was there; its population soared to more than 20,000 people who were employed in the mills and the local businesses and the huge hospital.

But when the steel mills closed in Braddock and some 90 percent of the population bolted from the small town, it left the boomtown in ruins. Its major hospital shut down. Most residents were either scratching to get out or too poor to leave. When Fetterman arrived, more than a third of the 3,000-ish residents were living in poverty. The place was largely forgotten.

Armed with a passion for ending income inequality (admittedly a bold goal), Fetterman ran for Braddock mayor in 2005 and squeaked by his competition in the Democratic primary by one vote, a provisional ballot.

The progressive Fetterman and his wife Gisele — they joke they’re a package deal, even in politics — together enacted things the city hadn’t seen in 30 years: Art installations, green spaces, urban gardens, housing programs and a new community center. One of the major tenets of his approach to governing was making life better for the young people who lived in the town.

He handily won re-election twice. Meanwhile, Gisele started the Free Store 15104, a repurposed vacant lot in town that is now used for recycled clothing, food and other essentials from stores and corporations in the area and gives them away to anyone who comes. It led her to co-found 412 Food Rescue, an initiative that connects volunteers with stores looking to give away excess goods. They’ve fed thousands in Braddock and beyond.

So Fetterman fell in love with Braddock and with the history it held. He tattooed the zip code, 15104, on his left arm, and has tattooed the dates of every homicide in the town since he took office. It was last updated on May 16 of this year, when a woman stabbed her boyfriend in a domestic dispute and the man bled out in an alley. Fetterman was there with the police not long after it happened.

He garnered a boatload of national attention for the work he’d done in the small town. His unorthodox look no doubt played a role in that, and he was dubbed “The Mayor of Rust,” by The New York Times and was featured on the Colbert Report for his work.

John Fetterman on the Colbert Report in 2010.
John Fetterman on the Colbert Report in 2010.

When he appeared on The Report a second time in 2010, Colbert asked Fetterman what was next for him politically. “I’ve got the greatest job ever,” Fetterman responded. “and I’m here to stay.”

Clearly, something changed.

The next step

Mayor John Braddock and his wife, Gisele.
Mayor John Braddock and his wife, Gisele. Credit: Chris Montgomery/Billy Penn

Fetterman says he simply wanted a bigger platform for his ideas, and he feels it’s his obligation to bring his views on inequality to the national stage. Or maybe it was just that the 2016 Pennsylvania Senate race seems wide open to any popular Democrat.

Incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey is frequently mentioned as one of the Republicans in danger of losing his job to a challenger in 2016. Fetterman seems to think a Dem can beat him.

“I saw his announcement event,” he said. “He barely had a 100 people in a ballroom, and it looked like a Between Two Ferns kind of thing, and this is a sitting U.S. Senator. So I don’t think the support runs deep.”

Whatever the case, Fetterman has ideas for what he wants to accomplish when in office. While he says he’s one of Barack Obama’s biggest fans, his politics probably align closer to Bernie Sanders and border on socialist — he’s pro-marijuana legalization and is for the decriminalization of drugs in general. He’s for expanding social programs. And he wants a more “humane” plan on immigration, an issue close to him, as Gisele emigrated to America from Brazil as a child and lived for a number of years as undocumented.

But these progressive stances aren’t easily heard in Washington. And Fetterman is trying not to make promises he can’t keep. When he became mayor of Braddock, he told his constituents that the town would never return to what it once was. He says the same applies to the capital.

“It’s important for me to project an authentic answer and response,” he said. “So instead of being like ‘I’m gonna go down there and give ’em hell,’ it’s like, ‘no, I’m going to work diligently, and I’m going to take the issues that I care about and that I’ve shared with the electorate and bring them to D.C.’”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.